18 May 2017

All Good Things: PROVIDENCE

When a great series concludes and it provides the perfect opportunity to assess what made it so good...

James R: Alan Moore has a long history with the apocalypse. Over the writer's prodigious and prolific output of the last thirty years, he has often woven the idea of an apocalypse (or apocalyptic event) into his narratives. With Providence, which reached its conclusion last month, there are some obvious parallels with these earlier world-ending events but there's something else going on here. To find out just what, we need to have a look at just what has made Providence so remarkable and, if you didn't pick it up, hopefully convince you that this series is well worth your time and money.

Alan Moore started writing about H. P. Lovecraft in the mid-1990s. By this point, he had become the most recognisable and lauded writer in mainstream comics. Watchmen had become widely acclaimed as one of the best comics stories ever told, and he was in the process of writing the extraordinary From Hell. He contributed a prose short story, 'The Courtyard' to an anthology of tales inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, The Starry Wisdom. We'll return to 'The Courtyard' shortly but firstly, I think it's vital to highlight that also at this time, Moore began to cultivate his central area of interest that would last for the next three decades - and beyond.

In From Hell, Moore investigates the power and architecture of ideas and time. In a truly dazzling chapter, Moore's Ripper, Sir William Gull, narrates a history of London that suggests that time has an architecture, and that certain ideas echo throughout history. He extends this idea further as the story progresses, showing how numerous people sent letters to the Metropolitan Police claiming to be Jack the Ripper - the concept of the Ripper igniting the imagination of London's population - creating an idea that then takes on an almost independent existence through history. The notion of ideas (or characters) gaining a life of their own isn't unique to Moore, or indeed comics: Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis have all used it as a narrative device (and Neil Gaiman's recently-televised American Gods is a prime example of this) but Moore took the idea and made it his central theme, both in his work and in his life.

In 1993, Alan Moore declared that he was becoming a magician - he decided that he wanted to spend more time researching and experimenting with the occult. Moore stated that he was interested in magic as it was an undeveloped field. He also embraced it as he saw it as the opportunity for self-knowledge. In George Khoury's excellent The Extraordinary Works Of Alan Moore, the writer describes magic and its relationship to ideas and self-knowledge (in this case, in reference to the ABC series Promethea):

"It's the thing of, over the archway of Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, it said "Gnothi see, auton," I believe. It means 'know thyself', and that is the goal of magic: know thyself, become thyself. By self, it means highest self. Now, does that mean that magic is not therefore involved with demons, angels, gods and all the rest of it? No, not at all. The demons, gods, angels and other supernatural beings are completely real. That is what magic is about. But the demons, gods, angels and other supernatural beings, yes they are completely real, but they are also, in some ways a part of you. In coming to know yourself, you will have to come to know all the entities that represent parts of you in the world of your mind. It's exactly what magic has always been portrayed as being. But you have to understand the emphasis is not upon what you think it might be on. Yes there are angels, devils, ghosts and goblins and all the rest of it, but they're all a part of you." (p.189, 2003)

Embracing this idea coincided with Moore's terrific line of America's Best Comics (of which the now legendary League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a part) and the idea was fully realised in the aforementioned Promethea. This title was Moore's attempt to transform his magical journey of self-knowledge into a stunning series; illustrated by J. H. Williams, the world of Promethea is obviously a fictional one, and it's also one that Moore threatens with an apocalypse. However, in keeping with Moore's personal outlook, the terminal event prophesied in the book turns out to be transformative rather than destructive: Promethea ushers in a new era of imagination and creativity for her world. If you haven't read Promethea, I can't recommend it highly enough; it's one of the most intelligent and beautiful books of the century. Having brought the curtain down on one magical journey though, Moore then turned to another, much darker tale of self-knowledge and the power of ideas. It was here that he revisited the world of 'The Courtyard' and H. P. Lovecraft.

The publication of the miniseries Neonomicon in 2010 came about as Moore was faced with a hefty tax bill, and so was looking for avenues to create new comics. Avatar Press had published the adaptation of Moore's 1994 short story, and so Moore proposed a sequel to The Courtyard. Neonomicon returned to the world of detective Aldo Sax, and brought Lovecraft's mythos fully into modern times. As with The Courtyard, Neonomicon was well received by readers and reviewers alike, but there was no sense that these were precursors to a much larger story. Providence was announced by Avatar in 2015, and heralded as having been in development for over two years. It was enticingly listed as ‘both a sequel and prequel to Neonomicon.’

At first, it wasn't clear how these stories would link together, or how the ill-fated journalist Robert Black tied to the life of H. P. Lovecraft. As the series progressed, it was revealed that this fictional universe was a remarkable blend of our own: featuring Lovecraft and his world, and occasional moments of historical symmetry (artist Jacen Burrows does a brilliant job of portraying real-world locations in the States) but also elements of fantasy; the euthanasia clinics in New York being a prime example. As Black travels through Lovecraft's New Hampshire, he encounters characters who will form the basis for Lovecraft's stories. Black then attempts to make sense of these bizarre events in the form of his diary, trying to shape the narrative into a form he can comprehend and tolerate. When Black and Lovecraft finally meet in issue #8, the series gains an inescapable momentum to a finale that sees the twilight of humanity, and the triumph of the nightmare world of Lovecraft.

What struck me as a reader is how well Moore fused his ideas of magic and imagination with Lovecraft's darker worldview. As Moore himself wrote in his introduction to The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft in 2014:

"He was capable of understanding and experiencing a still wider sense of unease than the beleaguered average citizen. Contemporaneous advances in humanity's expanding comprehension of the universe with its immeasurable distances and its indifferent random processes had redefined, dramatically, mankind's position in the cosmos. Far from being the whole point and purpose of creation, human life became a motiveless and accidental outbreak on a vanishingly tiny fleck of matter situated in the furthest corner of a stupefying swarm of stars, itself but one of many such swarms strewn in incoherent disarray across black vastness inconceivable."

In the same way that Promethea's imaginary world can be said to be Moore's - one where the power of imagination can be a liberator and a transformative experience - Providence is Lovecraft's. The dread that pervades the series is one of inevitability: for Lovecraft, we could not escape our fate of being consumed and annihilated by an overwhelming universe, and so it proves here.

The other incredible thing about Providence is how Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows approach and portray horror. Given that Avatar has a reputation for books that are excessive in terms of gore and mutilation, there's surprisingly little in the series. The horror is mainly psychological, and its protagonist Robert Black experiences things which, whilst supernatural, are relatable and tangible fears for many people. Primarily, there is the horror of madness; Providence brilliantly captures Black's doubt over the veracity of what he's experiencing - is he going mad, or is what we're seeing 'real'? There's also the focus on dream and nightmare: all of us have woken from slumber at some point in our lives and felt the momentary confusion as our conscious mind tries to discern what is real and what was a figment of our sleeping minds. Moore pushes this idea to terrifying conclusions, occasionally leaving Black stuck in a netherworld between waking and dream. Finally, there is the horror of isolation. As mentioned above, Moore believed that Lovecraft's writing reflected the time in which he lived, and alongside the overwhelming sense of the indifferent cosmos, there was also the rise of modern society, a place in which we grow more isolated from each other, and further away from the idea of community. Robert Black is a man cast adrift, and his lack of a centre is both terrifying and very real.

The other remarkable moment of unease in Providence comes in issue #7, ‘The Picture'. In this chapter, Black meets artist Ronald Pitman, who leads Black to a meeting with a ghoul living in the literal underworld of Boston. The issue is creepy enough, but the reveal on the final page is staggering: we are shown an image which, at first glance, could be taken for another superb illustration by Jacen Burrows. It shows the drugged policeman O'Brien seemingly about to be consumed by the ghouls but, on closer examination, it's clear that this is an actual photograph. The sense of disorientation I felt as I took in this image was palpable. As in The Courtyard, there is a sudden jolt as to how 'real' this is - once again, Moore manipulates the concept of fiction and reality and shows how plastic these ideas are. After reading the issue, I learned that the picture was the work of Moore's frequent collaborator, Mitch Jenkins, and Moore described the process as "The most expensive panel in comics history." (If you want to see more of the pictures that Jenkins took, as well as some of his other great work, you can do so here).

As the series built toward a climax, it became clear that tit was something truly special - the dark Yin to Promethea's light Yang. Throughout the final issue, there is the sense that the coming age of the Elder Gods can somehow be averted or undone, and Moore even teases that the series could conclude like Watchmen did - with an open ending that the reader is left to resolve for themselves. But it is not to be: in keeping with Lovecraft's nihilistic worldview, the returning protagonist of Neonomicon Merril Brears tells us: "I don't think it is that kind of story. It's not what humans want anymore. I think we should go with the Innsmouth tide... I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever... As far as anybody knows this is a predetermined universe, without free will. It's all destiny. It's all providence."

The perception of reality - or what humans construct as real - has also played a big part in Moore's work, and whereas Moore himself views the realm of ideas as a catalyst for positive change, and his belief in a deterministic universe as evidence that we are in some way eternal (Moore sees all of time existing simultaneously, and as such to be alive now is to be alive forever), the ending of Providence offers a different take on the power of ideas; the destructive notions that plagued Lovecraft's own life - fear, mistrust, hatred - are ideas that bring about our destruction, and we can choose to embrace them with open arms. In Providence a deterministic universe is a prison from which we can't escape. What's exceptional is that Moore doesn't present Lovecraft's view as 'right' or 'wrong' - they're simply a different perspective on the human experience.

Unsettling, ambitious and a series that challenges the boundaries of fiction, Providence was described back in 2015 by the Avatar publicity as "A breathtaking masterpiece of sequential art that will define modern horror for this generation. Invoking a comparison to a prior literary masterpiece is not something to be handled lightly, but in scope, importance and execution: Providence is the Watchmen of horror." At the time, I felt this was the PR hype that all comics publishers indulge in to sell their books, but now I concede that they were right. I wouldn't quite go so far as to place it on a par with Watchmen, but a masterpiece that defines horror for the 21st century? Undoubtedly. Providence shows that Alan Moore is still the master of this medium.

No comments: